TalkTV is in trouble. Despite the millions Rupert Murdoch has invested in his newly launched television channel, and the supposedly magnetic presence of Piers Morgan, its numbers have sometimes been so low that the official broadcasting rating agency has not registered a single viewer. Last Wednesday, Piers Morgan Uncensored, the nightly showcase of debate and un-woke opinions intended to be TalkTV’s centrepiece, was said to have attracted 24,000 persone, and then lost over half of them, leaving with it with an estimated audience of 10,000.
Over at GB News, the similarly right-inclined talk-based outlet that has survived its equally disastrous launch, it was presumably pints of bitter and sausage rolls all round: that night its competing offering – hosted by the somewhat niche Canadian pundit Mark Steyn – reportedly won the ratings battle with a princely initial viewing figure of 54,000.
It was for research rather than recreation that I watched Morgan’s show that night. It was an underwhelming experience: a very long hour of the host affecting to be what Noel Gallagher once memorably termed “a man with a fork in a world of soup”, fuming about everything from the governor of the Bank of England (who is “running around like a … hyperbolic headless chicken”) to an unnamed police officer who had allegedly refused to work outside office hours.
During an item that began with Morgan complaining about the royal family apologising for the British empire, a journalist from the Sunday Times had to inform him that they had done no such thing; Morgan’s thoughts about the UK’s colonial legacy found no expression more eloquent than the claim that “there is good and bad in all these things”. For a programme intended to “upset all the right people”, it is weirdly anodyne: proof, forse, that if you sell yourself to the public as an irate avenger of snowflakes, “cancel culture” and all the rest, it is probably best not to look like someone going through the motions.
Even if Morgan’s show – and, infatti, TalkTV itself – prove beyond rescue, they are one small part of a change that may well be here to stay, born in the madly polarised world of American news broadcasting and then taken to its logical conclusion by social media. Thanks partly to an anarchic, amateurish spirit that seems truer to its Brexity values than the slickness of Murdoch’s new offering, GB News might just about endure: though its ratings are not exactly mass-market, they seem significantly higher than Talk TV’s (Nigel Farage’s Monday-Thursday show has recently attracted a peak audience of 99,500), and the channel exerts a much bigger influence through the clips it endlessly circulates online.
Talk-based radio has probably never been as high-profile as it is now, and the millions who listen to such voices as the US podcaster Joe Rogan – said to have sold his show to Spotify for £75m – shows that the market for a mixture of comedy, ranting, conspiracy theory and “debate” is huge. Scroll through your news feed, or flick through YouTube, and the sense of a profound shift in how many people receive and understand what some people still call “the news” will be confirmed: in an ocean of “talk”, the complexities and nuances of the real world are always in danger of disappearing.
The “legacy” media have long since been infected by the same virus. The best news broadcasting, it seems to me, is necessarily based around reporting. Its polar opposite is exemplified by the insane levels of attention paid by orthodox news outlets to such people as Farage and Laurence Fox, and the comically mouthy pundits – from both left and right – who endlessly appear on TV news channels, and aim to sooner or later make it on to BBC One’s Question Time. The first demands resources, time, care and attention; punditry and polemic, al contrario, require little more than cab fares and paltry appearance fees. Herein lies one overlooked danger in the government’s hostility to the BBC and its plans to privatise Channel 4: if broadcasting is left to the market, the reduction of news to “talk” will only accelerate.
Clearly, there was never a golden age of bias-free reporting, the media has always promoted loudmouths, and its big players have long used their clout to exercise power without responsibility. But in the pre-“talk” era, the dominant model of success in news and current affairs began with vox pops and door-knocks, and moved on to dedicated work on breaking big stories.
That ideal still exists. But a much more alluring career path now centres on sitting behind an expensive-looking microphone, endlessly venting, and trying to pile on likes and subscribers. If something happens, the point is not to go out and understand it, but to quickly take a position and sound off about it: your job is not really to cover the news, but to see if you can make headlines yourself.
“Talk” culture, moreover, has long since bled into politics. The fact that the UK has a government led by a former newspaper columnist was always going to make us a case study in this syndrome, and so it has proved. Deporting refugees to Rwanda is the kind of idea that might have been proposed by a GB News host or some irate caller to LBC, and it is now being rolled out into the real world. Much the same point could be made about Brexit.
But the best example is surely Boris Johnson and his colleagues’ increasingly tedious “war on woke”, whereby ministers sound off about the evils of working from home, the sanctity of statues and whatever else, and their words dissolve into the same white noise that emanates from the mouths of Morgan et al. Herein lies a model of government copied from Donald Trump, whereby leaders are not there to actually do anything, but to endlessly orchestrate outrage and division to their advantage.
E ancora. Morgan’s ratings suggest that, in the UK at least, the appeal of endless “talk” has its limits. TalkTV’s basic mistake, forse, has been a failure to understand that the politics of polarisation and fury peaked back in 2016; and that after our drawn-out exit from the EU and our grim national experience of the pandemic, most people are now weary and jaded, and in no mood to spend endless hours watching and listening to angry people. The vast majority either want to consume as little news as possible or tune into something calm, even-handed and rooted in reality.
The war in Ukraine has provided a sobering reminder of the importance of on-the-ground reporting and journalistic expertise. Something comparable applies to this country’s cost-of-living crisis, which demands not hot takes, but sensitive coverage and serious solutions. In that context, who cares about a view of the world that seems to extend no further than a set of studio walls? What matters is the single mother who cannot feed her kids or heat her house, the family taking refuge in a Kyiv basement, and stories that prove one thing beyond doubt: that “talk” – whether “uncensored” or not – is not just cheap, but irrelevant.